Blafkin on the GPL and Proprietary Software

by on March 30, 2007 · 20 comments

Mark Blafkin and I have been having an interesting and productive discussion in the comments to Braden’s post about the GPL v. 3. Mark says:

The FSF and the GPL itself actively attempt to limit collaboration between proprietary and free software communities. As you’ll find in the article previously mentioned, Mr. Stallman says that it is better for GNU/Linux to not support video cards rather than include a proprietary binary.

In fact, the entire basis of the GPL is to frustrate cooperation between the immoral proprietary software guys and free software. The viral nature of the GPL (if you use code and integrate or build upon it, your code must become GPL) is designed to prevent that cooperation because it will lessen the freedom of the free software itself.

And, yes, it is hypocritical if you define freedom in the way that Libertarian’s define freedom, but not if you believe in the FSF version of freedom. When they say “freedom,” they don’t mean freedom in the sense that we mean it, Tim. It is four things and four things only… Those four issues trump all other definitions/aspects of freedom that you and I may hold. So, they would see no hypocrisy in preventing users from the freedom of using proprietary software, because the proprietary software is enslaving them anyway (if you buy the logic).

The problem with this argument is that if you look at the FSF’s actions, you’ll find very little evidence that they’ve ever tried to prohibit GPL users from collaborating with proprietary software firms. Stallman doesn’t approve of distributing proprietary software drivers with free software, but as far as I can see, nothing in the GPL prohibits doing so. The terms of the GPL (including the DRM and patent provisions) are focused solely on ensuring that all users of free software have equal freedom with respect to that software.

Now that doesn’t mean Stallman is shy about expressing his opinion that user would be better off if they stopped using proprietary software. But so what? Libertarians, of all people, should understand the difference between words and actions. Just as I might encourage my fellow human beings to become vegetarians or pacifists while not trying to forcibly prevent anyone from eating meat or owning a gun if they want to, Stallman is encouraging people to voluntarily abstain from the use of proprietary software, while drafting the GPL in a way that leaves that choice up to the end user.

And for that matter, I can’t even think of any examples where the FSF has criticized efforts to make free and proprietary software more interoperable, provided that they didn’t involve incorporating free software into a proprietary system. For example, has Stallman ever criticized Samba, a program whose entire purpose is to make free software work on Windows-based networks? Has he criticized efforts by the Open Office team to allow free software users to use Microsoft Word documents?

Clearly, Stallman would like a world where all software is free, just as a vegetarian would like a world where no one eats meat. But as far as I can see, his actions have been entirely consistent with the libertarian principle that you should promote your goals via persuasion and cooperation, not coercion. The GPL, too, appears to respect that principle. It is focused on preserving users’ freedom to use GPLed code without restriction. As far as I can see, none of its provisions seem geared toward preventing users from using free software alongside proprietary software if they wish to do so.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    Tim:

    Great post.

    In reality, all that FSF is doing is trying to prevent the theft of GPL code, by some entity that would make that code unfree.

    When you see that all of the complexity of the GPL 3.0 is really a reaction to some equally clever scheme (for example: TIVO) to steal GPL code, it is clear why the GPL has gotten complex.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Tim:

    Great post.

    In reality, all that FSF is doing is trying to prevent the theft of GPL code, by some entity that would make that code unfree.

    When you see that all of the complexity of the GPL 3.0 is really a reaction to some equally clever scheme (for example: TIVO) to steal GPL code, it is clear why the GPL has gotten complex.

  • http://www.davidmcelroy.org/ David McElroy

    The BSD license makes SO much more sense — if your goal is to give ANY user the right to take software and use it freely. With the BSD license, I can take code and do whatever I want with it. I can incorporate it into a software product that I then make proprietary, but my use of that code doesn’t mean that the original code is no longer totally free for everyone else. The GPL lets you do what you want with code, but ONLY if you go along with the FSF’s notions about software being open source. You can’t incorporate that code into a product whose source isn’t released, so you’re prevented from using it in anything you don’t intend to give away.

    The BSD license gives people true freedom about what THEY want to do with code. The GPL is primarily designed to enforce the FSF’s philosophy about open source. The BSD license gives power to the user. The GPL gives power to those who write the license. It’s clear to me which gives more freedom.

  • http://www.davidmcelroy.org/ David McElroy

    The BSD license makes SO much more sense — if your goal is to give ANY user the right to take software and use it freely. With the BSD license, I can take code and do whatever I want with it. I can incorporate it into a software product that I then make proprietary, but my use of that code doesn’t mean that the original code is no longer totally free for everyone else. The GPL lets you do what you want with code, but ONLY if you go along with the FSF’s notions about software being open source. You can’t incorporate that code into a product whose source isn’t released, so you’re prevented from using it in anything you don’t intend to give away.

    The BSD license gives people true freedom about what THEY want to do with code. The GPL is primarily designed to enforce the FSF’s philosophy about open source. The BSD license gives power to the user. The GPL gives power to those who write the license. It’s clear to me which gives more freedom.

  • http://vitanuova.loyalty.org/ Seth Schoen

    “You can’t incorporate [GPL] code into a product whose source isn’t released [...] The BSD license gives people true freedom about what THEY want to do with code. [...] The BSD license gives power to the user.”

    Doesn’t this depend on who gets to count as “people” and “the user”? In FSF’s view, “the user” being protected is the end user (who is running the code). That does mean that “the user” who packages, distributes, sells, etc. the code or products containing it is not allowed to do things that restrict “the user” who runs it.

    FSF set out this point in a different form at

    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/freedom-or-power.html

    (This essay does slightly undermine Tim Lee’s point about FSF’s purported tolerance toward nonfree software licensing. But it makes clear that FSF is trying to protect users in the sense of people who run the software as distinct from users who package or distribute it. Of course, FSF wants to protect them, too, but not in the event that their intentions or interests conflict with those of end-users.)

    This distinction does seem to me to be at the root of most of the disagreements between copyleft advocates and copyleft critics in the free software community. Thus when FSF wrote that “[t]o protect your rights, we need to make restrictions that forbid anyone to deny you these rights or to ask you to surrender the rights”, some people said “why is it OK to make any restrictions at all?” or “if someone denies freedoms to end users, isn’t that that person’s fault, not the original developer’s fault for failing to prevent it?”.

  • http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk Crosbie Fitch

    Freedom to restrict someone else’s freedom?

    All men should have the liberty to enslave their fellows?

    Why is it so difficult to grok the fact that the GPL restores the liberty suspended by copyright and patent law?

    How can anyone seriously believe their freedom is legitimately increased by having the ‘freedom’ to suspend the freedom of their fellow men?

    The GPL is equivalent to an anti-slavery mechanism. If you would like to retain the unethical privilege of owning slaves then don’t use the GPL.

    The GPL is for those who find the idea of using copyright and patent to restrict others repugnant.

    Quite happy restricting others? Don’t use the GPL.

    But, for hecks sake, at least attempt to understand why a license that nullifies your privilege of being able to suspend the liberty of the public, is actually FREER than one that gives you ‘freedom’ to bind the manacles of copyright and patent upon your fellow men.

  • http://vitanuova.loyalty.org/ Seth Schoen

    “You can’t incorporate [GPL] code into a product whose source isn’t released [...] The BSD license gives people true freedom about what THEY want to do with code. [...] The BSD license gives power to the user.”

    Doesn’t this depend on who gets to count as “people” and “the user”? In FSF’s view, “the user” being protected is the end user (who is running the code). That does mean that “the user” who packages, distributes, sells, etc. the code or products containing it is not allowed to do things that restrict “the user” who runs it.

    FSF set out this point in a different form at

    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/freedom-or-power….

    (This essay does slightly undermine Tim Lee’s point about FSF’s purported tolerance toward nonfree software licensing. But it makes clear that FSF is trying to protect users in the sense of people who run the software as distinct from users who package or distribute it. Of course, FSF wants to protect them, too, but not in the event that their intentions or interests conflict with those of end-users.)

    This distinction does seem to me to be at the root of most of the disagreements between copyleft advocates and copyleft critics in the free software community. Thus when FSF wrote that “[t]o protect your rights, we need to make restrictions that forbid anyone to deny you these rights or to ask you to surrender the rights”, some people said “why is it OK to make any restrictions at all?” or “if someone denies freedoms to end users, isn’t that that person’s fault, not the original developer’s fault for failing to prevent it?”.

  • http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk Crosbie Fitch

    Freedom to restrict someone else’s freedom?

    All men should have the liberty to enslave their fellows?

    Why is it so difficult to grok the fact that the GPL restores the liberty suspended by copyright and patent law?

    How can anyone seriously believe their freedom is legitimately increased by having the ‘freedom’ to suspend the freedom of their fellow men?

    The GPL is equivalent to an anti-slavery mechanism. If you would like to retain the unethical privilege of owning slaves then don’t use the GPL.

    The GPL is for those who find the idea of using copyright and patent to restrict others repugnant.

    Quite happy restricting others? Don’t use the GPL.

    But, for hecks sake, at least attempt to understand why a license that nullifies your privilege of being able to suspend the liberty of the public, is actually FREER than one that gives you ‘freedom’ to bind the manacles of copyright and patent upon your fellow men.

  • http://www.davidmcelroy.org/ David McElroy

    Those who turn open source into a religion are the ones who are blocking its further adoption. One of the most bizarre things about some open source zealots is that they refuse to acknowledge that someone else can come to a different position honestly and rationally. On the other hand, I see what they want and understand their position. I just find it absurd to claim that an end user is being enslaved if he doesn’t have access to the source code for any software he uses. There’s no basis for making this claim. It’s an invention that’s purely pulled out of thin air. It’s pretty arrogant to claim that I don’t “attempt to understand” a postion that I clearly understand, but find stupid.

    It’s also absurd to claim that owning code and owning slaves is a valid comparison. Owning code that no one has access to isn’t depriving anyone of any right. Owning a human being is. So that comparison is bizarre in every way.

    I’m perfectly happy restricting others when it’s reasonable and ethical. If I own a car, I’m perfectly happy to prevent others from using it. If I own land, I’m perfectly happy to prevent others from coming onto it against my will. The idea that “restricting others” is such a terrible thing doesn’t make any sense without a lot of qualifiers that open source advocates conveniently ignore.

    Nobody has the RIGHT to my work unless I grant the person that right. If I write a program — or a book or a song or any such thing — I deserve to control how my work is used, at least for a limited amount of time. Modern extensions of copyright are silly and unreasonable, because they’re clearly designed to do nothing other than continue to enrich copyright holders forever. But the notion that creators don’t deserve ANY control over their work is unreasonable and unworkable in a real economy. Besides, the GPL supporters clearly believe that THEY have the right to control their work, because the GPL puts restrictions on how code can be used. Isn’t it convenient that these people believe that THEY can enforce THEIR views about how code should be used, but people with other views aren’t legitimate is making their own decisions about their own work?

    If you TRULY believe that it’s not right to control how code is used, release it into the public domain. Then anyone can use it as he pleases — for ANY kind of project. But you’re not going to do that, because that wouldn’t restrict what others can do with it in the way that YOU want to. The FSF and its acolytes are all about trying to force others to accept their view of intellectual property (which is basically that no ideas can ever be property). It’s ironic that they use a contract to restrict what can be done with ideas in order to prove their notion that no one can restrict what can be done with ideas.

  • http://www.davidmcelroy.org/ David McElroy

    Those who turn open source into a religion are the ones who are blocking its further adoption. One of the most bizarre things about some open source zealots is that they refuse to acknowledge that someone else can come to a different position honestly and rationally. On the other hand, I see what they want and understand their position. I just find it absurd to claim that an end user is being enslaved if he doesn’t have access to the source code for any software he uses. There’s no basis for making this claim. It’s an invention that’s purely pulled out of thin air. It’s pretty arrogant to claim that I don’t “attempt to understand” a postion that I clearly understand, but find stupid.

    It’s also absurd to claim that owning code and owning slaves is a valid comparison. Owning code that no one has access to isn’t depriving anyone of any right. Owning a human being is. So that comparison is bizarre in every way.

    I’m perfectly happy restricting others when it’s reasonable and ethical. If I own a car, I’m perfectly happy to prevent others from using it. If I own land, I’m perfectly happy to prevent others from coming onto it against my will. The idea that “restricting others” is such a terrible thing doesn’t make any sense without a lot of qualifiers that open source advocates conveniently ignore.

    Nobody has the RIGHT to my work unless I grant the person that right. If I write a program — or a book or a song or any such thing — I deserve to control how my work is used, at least for a limited amount of time. Modern extensions of copyright are silly and unreasonable, because they’re clearly designed to do nothing other than continue to enrich copyright holders forever. But the notion that creators don’t deserve ANY control over their work is unreasonable and unworkable in a real economy. Besides, the GPL supporters clearly believe that THEY have the right to control their work, because the GPL puts restrictions on how code can be used. Isn’t it convenient that these people believe that THEY can enforce THEIR views about how code should be used, but people with other views aren’t legitimate is making their own decisions about their own work?

    If you TRULY believe that it’s not right to control how code is used, release it into the public domain. Then anyone can use it as he pleases — for ANY kind of project. But you’re not going to do that, because that wouldn’t restrict what others can do with it in the way that YOU want to. The FSF and its acolytes are all about trying to force others to accept their view of intellectual property (which is basically that no ideas can ever be property). It’s ironic that they use a contract to restrict what can be done with ideas in order to prove their notion that no one can restrict what can be done with ideas.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    Crosbie,

    Uh huh. I think I’ll just help myself to the products of your labor. Surely you won’t mind me denying you part of your paycheck if you work in a services industry, or taking some of your physical products if you make something for a living. Clearly, you think that it is morally wrong for a software developer to actually have any right to the product of their labor. And I’m not talking about the right to control how it’s used, but rather you seem to clearly have an issue with the exclusive right to sell it. That’s the only conclusion I can come to after reading your comment.

    My skepticism of the GPL comes from being personally a little more of an anarchist than a libertarian. Why do I say that my views are a bit more along the lines of anarchist than libertarian? I define freedom as being not told what to do, not a series of contractual agreements and legal mechanisms except the most rudimentary ones (basic property rights, no violent crimes). I am skeptical of the GPL because the BSD license has fewer restrictions. It is more anarchistic than the GPL.

    Granted, I also am skeptical of the need of government to even maintain general professional law enforcement agencies, save for the investigative components (such as detectives, not general beat cops). So, your mileage might vary with me there…

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    Crosbie,

    Uh huh. I think I’ll just help myself to the products of your labor. Surely you won’t mind me denying you part of your paycheck if you work in a services industry, or taking some of your physical products if you make something for a living. Clearly, you think that it is morally wrong for a software developer to actually have any right to the product of their labor. And I’m not talking about the right to control how it’s used, but rather you seem to clearly have an issue with the exclusive right to sell it. That’s the only conclusion I can come to after reading your comment.

    My skepticism of the GPL comes from being personally a little more of an anarchist than a libertarian. Why do I say that my views are a bit more along the lines of anarchist than libertarian? I define freedom as being not told what to do, not a series of contractual agreements and legal mechanisms except the most rudimentary ones (basic property rights, no violent crimes). I am skeptical of the GPL because the BSD license has fewer restrictions. It is more anarchistic than the GPL.

    Granted, I also am skeptical of the need of government to even maintain general professional law enforcement agencies, save for the investigative components (such as detectives, not general beat cops). So, your mileage might vary with me there…

  • http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk Crosbie Fitch

    No-one has any right to help themselves to anyone else’s intellectual property, nor to deny anyone else the ability to sell the product of their labour for any price they can get for it in a free market.

    If I sell you my intellectual property, it’s yours.

    The difference is, those who believe it is right to suspend your liberty believe I should be able to deny you the right to enjoy your own intellectual property.

    If you buy it, it’s yours. You can use it. You can share it. You can modify it. You can sell it.

    If you’re not free to sell your labour in a free market you’re a slave.

  • http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk Crosbie Fitch

    No-one has any right to help themselves to anyone else’s intellectual property, nor to deny anyone else the ability to sell the product of their labour for any price they can get for it in a free market.

    If I sell you my intellectual property, it’s yours.

    The difference is, those who believe it is right to suspend your liberty believe I should be able to deny you the right to enjoy your own intellectual property.

    If you buy it, it’s yours. You can use it. You can share it. You can modify it. You can sell it.

    If you’re not free to sell your labour in a free market you’re a slave.

  • http://www.digital-copyright.ca/petition Chris Brand

    I always think of the GPL this way : people releasing code under the GPL ask to be “paid” for it in the form of getting access to the enhancements and other changes that people make to it, in addition to the “payment” they would also get if they used a BSD-style license.

  • http://www.digital-copyright.ca/petition Chris Brand

    I always think of the GPL this way : people releasing code under the GPL ask to be “paid” for it in the form of getting access to the enhancements and other changes that people make to it, in addition to the “payment” they would also get if they used a BSD-style license.

  • http://blog.actonline.org Mark Blafkin

    I really need to stop taking weekends off from blogging, and clear my Monday meeting schedule.

    Tim, you are missing the forest for the trees. Yes, there isn’t anything in the GPL that prevents distribution of the proprietary video card drivers alongside free software. But, doesn’t it seem odd to you that Linux has to distribute separate binaries for the drivers? In the Windows, Mac, Unix operating system INTEGRATE those drivers directly into the OS. Why doesn’t Linux? Because the GPL specifically forbids it!

    I’m late to this thread, so I decided to provide a more detailed response over at the ACT Blog

    Actually, it is Crosbie who seems to have the best understanding of the GPL, the FSF, and their raison d’etre. He gave a perfect description of the reasoning and effect of the GPL when he tried to explain how a “license that nullifies your privilege of being able to suspend the liberty of the public, is actually FREER than one that gives you ‘freedom’ to bind the manacles of copyright and patent upon your fellow men.” Tim, read and learn.

    I don’t share the beliefs of the FSF like Crosbie, but I think they have every right to hold them and advocate for them. Our only point at ACT is that the new GPL in particular may limit the adoption of free/open source software in the future. For Richard Stallman, ideology comes before business success. I’m just not sure the same goes for IBM, Red Hat, and others more pragmatic voices.

  • http://blog.actonline.org Mark Blafkin

    I really need to stop taking weekends off from blogging, and clear my Monday meeting schedule.

    Tim, you are missing the forest for the trees. Yes, there isn’t anything in the GPL that prevents distribution of the proprietary video card drivers alongside free software. But, doesn’t it seem odd to you that Linux has to distribute separate binaries for the drivers? In the Windows, Mac, Unix operating system INTEGRATE those drivers directly into the OS. Why doesn’t Linux? Because the GPL specifically forbids it!

    I’m late to this thread, so I decided to provide a more detailed response over at the ACT Blog

    Actually, it is Crosbie who seems to have the best understanding of the GPL, the FSF, and their raison d’etre. He gave a perfect description of the reasoning and effect of the GPL when he tried to explain how a “license that nullifies your privilege of being able to suspend the liberty of the public, is actually FREER than one that gives you ‘freedom’ to bind the manacles of copyright and patent upon your fellow men.” Tim, read and learn.

    I don’t share the beliefs of the FSF like Crosbie, but I think they have every right to hold them and advocate for them. Our only point at ACT is that the new GPL in particular may limit the adoption of free/open source software in the future. For Richard Stallman, ideology comes before business success. I’m just not sure the same goes for IBM, Red Hat, and others more pragmatic voices.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    Tim, you are missing the forest for the trees. Yes, there isn’t anything in the GPL that prevents distribution of the proprietary video card drivers alongside free software. But, doesn’t it seem odd to you that Linux has to distribute separate binaries for the drivers? In the Windows, Mac, Unix operating system INTEGRATE those drivers directly into the OS. Why doesn’t Linux? Because the GPL specifically forbids it!

    No, not true. Several distro’s do ship with proprietary drivers. (Knoppix, ASPLinux) both ship with NVidia 3d drivers, for example. There is nothing that prevents GPL programs from inter-operating with non-GPL programs. Nor is there anything in the GPL that would prevent such drivers from being shipped on the same CD. Generally, it is the license of the proprietary drivers that prevents them from being freely redistributed freely.

    Also, Windows has not ‘integrated’ NVidias drivers, in any meaningful way. You still need to use NVidia’s drivers, not Microsofts for reasonable 3D performance.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Tim, you are missing the forest for the trees. Yes, there isn’t anything in the GPL that prevents distribution of the proprietary video card drivers alongside free software. But, doesn’t it seem odd to you that Linux has to distribute separate binaries for the drivers? In the Windows, Mac, Unix operating system INTEGRATE those drivers directly into the OS. Why doesn’t Linux? Because the GPL specifically forbids it!

    No, not true. Several distro’s do ship with proprietary drivers. (Knoppix, ASPLinux) both ship with NVidia 3d drivers, for example. There is nothing that prevents GPL programs from inter-operating with non-GPL programs. Nor is there anything in the GPL that would prevent such drivers from being shipped on the same CD. Generally, it is the license of the proprietary drivers that prevents them from being freely redistributed freely.

    Also, Windows has not ‘integrated’ NVidias drivers, in any meaningful way. You still need to use NVidia’s drivers, not Microsofts for reasonable 3D performance.

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